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Issue 19, Prosa | September 2016


Prologue to “A Sibling’s Story”

Doha, Qatar, 2007

It was shortly after I began my first yoga studio when a junior teacher, an expat wife, who wanted a different shift, or something told me I was ‘not very yogic.’

I looked at her, surprised. I was balancing on a tightrope that could easily become a noose, selling a fitness program that was deeply Hindu in a fundamentally Muslim environment, and as a single mother risking my children’s futures to do so. And then to be told I was not very yogic. I really just felt like laughing.

I didn’t. I remember I tried to smooth it over and work it out, but all the while I know I was thinking, Not very yogic. Not very yogic, as if you need to tell me. As if I didn’t already know how very non-yogic I am.

But later I decided to write it all down, to shame myself and, yes, reveal to you, the one whose history I manipulated, the truths of how very un-yogic I am. It seemed a good enough place to start.

So here they are.

I smoke. Every so often when I am stressed out or upset, I will dig up my secret stash of stale cigarettes, find a corner in the dark somewhere, then drag it, fast and furiously, down.

I am addicted to coffee and deeply attached to the red wine that I am now consuming almost nightly.

I am a terrible vegetarian, even when I am trying. My food group of choice is chocolate.

I have hit my daughter. The oldest, not the youngest.

I hit my ex-husband, too. I struck him hard but he struck me harder. That only happened once.

My practice of brahmacharya, sexual restraint, has had some very low points. I am not proud of this at all though I could write pages of justifications.

Drugs? There have been some.

And there is more, of course, much more. So much more in fact I wonder if there is any way I am yogic at all.

The only way I can think of right now is that I like to listen to the sound of my breath and that I seek a quieter mind. Maybe, also, it is in the way that I believe. I believe, for instance, that if I write down everything here that needs to be written then the day will come when I will be able to sit down sweetly and find that point of singing silence somewhere deep within me. So even if there is violence in what I lay before you, even if some of the truths I say will break the basic rule of ahimsa, I believe, or hope at least, that this fragment of your story will speak for a stronger more substantive non-violence that eventually will free you.

I guess what I am hoping is that writing like this becomes an act of yoga as well as an act of spell-breaking and that in a way by showing myself up as not very yogic I will be yogic in the long run. I am peeling the rotten onion but I am doing it for you.

Mackay, Queensland, Australia, 1966

I was four months old the night my sister was conceived, and already I was serious and silent, a clairaudient child. I never smiled or laughed. I didn’t coo or kick or giggle. Instead I listened. I listened to the bodies that I lived with. I listened to machinery grind cane. To sugar bats soar and cane toads croak. To dreams and desire, to aspirations and intent. I listened to the country, to the swell of waves washing through the reef, to the softly rotting rainforest and beyond that to the perpetual invitation to breathlessness, the long slow exhalation of the distant desert.

My mother, who was blind to my auditory concentration, feared that I was slow. In our failed interactions, my retarded responses and blank stares, she pictured a deaf mute or autistic child. But I wasn’t deaf and far from being autistic; I had been embittered by the loneliness of the womb. It had been too big for me, too bleak and solitary, more like a watery tomb, an enforced unnatural isolation. I had felt my mother’s sickness, her surprised disorientation, then her loathing of my presence. I knew I meant an end to her, not a beginning or a life. So I had spent the whole nine months of my gestation struggling to hear beyond her ceaseless heartbeat, struggling to hear an end to isolation. What I heard instead was my parents’ exclusive love in a vast, unpopulated land. What I heard was their promise to each other, to never let me intrude upon their love.

On the night my sister was conceived, I was lying on the bed beside my mother, intently staring at her mouth. I heard humidity seeping into our weatherboards. I heard heat lounging on our tin roof, sweltering in our decaying stilts. I heard the promise of a storm, the murmur of a breeze, and then I heard my father, Mikhail, returning from work.

He walked in slowly, his short-sleeved shirt stained beneath the arms. His curls were flattened by the heat. But when he saw my mother looking up at him from an unmade bed, he sighed so completely that I almost forgave him his obsessive love for her.

My mother, Honor, jumped up to greet him. Her robe fell open to expose her milk-stained bra and still firm flesh as she started reciting her everyday lies. She said I had rolled myself over when I had only turned away from her begging smile. Said I had squealed with pleasure when I had only exhaled too noisily. Said I had looked deep into her eyes as if to say ‘thank you Mother, thank you’, when actually I had been transfixed by the image of solitary children in them.

My father smiled at this invented daughter and picked me up. He rolled his tongue, vibrated his lips, then tired of my hollow stare and handed me back.

‘She’s tired,’ Mother said, ‘but if you’d seen her earlier. If you had just seen her…’ Her fabrications faltered and she looked down at me. ‘Mikhail,’ she sighed, ‘we’ve done a wonderful thing. We’ve got a beautiful daughter here.’

‘But we were only practising.’ He kissed her ear, he moved me aside. ‘This time we’ll get it right. This time we’ll make it perfect.’

On the edge of the bed, I didn’t flinch, just lay there, a silent, partial child, listening to soft, sensual laughter, listening to jokes about voyeuristic babies and pornographic memories, listening to my parents pulsate with desire. Above us the beating fan cut their murmured dialogue into disembodied chords, which mingled with the lazy undertones of heat, floated on waves of sinking humidity, harmonised with the distant urban drone—until their speech stopped and the room collapsed into silence. I could hear them touch then, hear the careful caress of a stubbled cheek, hear fingers circle soft tissue, linger on curved flesh. I could hear the brush of falling cotton, the abrasion of moist lips, the quivering of Mother’s secretions. Their bodies were permeated by sound and in the absence of speech, I could hear it all. Rushing blood, racing pulse, swelling breath. Sound which mounted and fell away, invisible but there. Sound which echoed against the din of our hot, heavy weatherboard, creating a duet of body parts I endured alone.

Outside, there were other sounds. The screech of a black cockatoo. Rolling thunder moving closer. The sound of water falling, of sound suspended high and then falling from the air.

Inside, Mother groaned. I heard the depths my father plunged to.

Outside, a flushing toilet, a yelling man, a slamming door.

Inside, long, then short, then long again. An abrasive rhythm on a grating bed.

Outside, wind lashing trees, sheets flailing clotheslines.

Inside, the dissonance of grinding skin, of arms and legs pushing against muscles wound like string.

Overwhelmed, I opened my eyes. I tried to eradicate sound with vision but the shadows only emphasised the volume of my mother’s cries. I turned away, tried to find a space between the noises to measure time with, but the darkness only amplified the reverberations in the room.

Attacked by so much noise, I started twisting, fidgeting, thrusting. My movements went unnoticed. I kicked, grunted, pulled at my ears, scratched at my cheek. Still nothing, no response. In desperation, I took an enormous breath. I prepared to defend myself by howling at the world, by giving it its own back, but at that very moment, the rain swept in and assailed our galvanised roof with all its audible frequencies.

It was intensely pure and white, that noise, deep and safe enough to drown in. It was regular yet arrhythmic, loud yet peaceful. I closed my eyes and entered it, entered the sound of water beating on tin, tumbling in gutters, cascading down glass. Head flung back, I listened to it submerge all other sounds, listened to it flood the room, wash the silence into a clear, pure undertow. It washed so deep I barely remembered to breathe.

But then, as the rain eased off and my parents grew quiet, I heard something else, something entirely different. It was below the frequency of the audible but I heard it as clearly as the distant waves. It was buried in secret chambers but was as clear as a mountain sunrise. I squirmed. Mother, disengaging herself with a sigh, turned her already flowing breasts towards me pulling me close. I latched on, unyieldingly, and belly to belly – skin to skin – I felt the vibrations of her body, heard the hollows of her womb. But it wasn’t enough. I had to get closer. So I struggled, kicked, wormed. But that was hopeless too. My activity only stirred my parents up. They got excited, set to cooing and laughing at me, set to telling each other how wonderful I was. So I calmed myself and waited. Waited until they slept, waited until all was very, very still.

Then, in the scoured silence of the night, I heard it again. Heard the frantic march, the swimming parade, the Pied Piper calling. I followed the call and went inside. Traveling through dark and narrow passageways I went deeper, deeper, deeper. And then, as I swam against a forceful downward tide into familiar resonant chambers I heard contact, breakthrough, the genetic message spilling like water from a cup and realised that this was the noise of life before light, the call of creation, the voice of conception. Transfixed, I nursed through the night. I nursed my mother dry. I nursed until I heard the very first splitting of the cell. It sounded like the rush of an opening door.

Doha, 2002

That beginning was just one beginning so let me begin again. Let me begin from this place of sandstorms and stories that I now call my home.

I fell into it by accident and the shock of our arrival stays with me to this day. The door of the plane opened to a wall of heat and humidity so shimmering thick that for a moment we didn’t breathe at all. I held my daughters’ hands tightly, descending down the stairs and onto the steaming tarmac. It was five years ago but I see it now, my littlest one’s hair bouncing up in curls, my oldest’s falling flat.

We have two suitcases between us – everything else has been abandoned – but I am a western expat worker so a house with crystal chandeliers in every bedroom has been provided. I buy Ariana, my eldest child, the one that feels our losses most, the first of our Maltese puppies. For Cadance I find a nanny that she doesn’t like at all. I work, making daily mistakes, worrying about each in the fear that I will lose this chance and the opportunity it means. It takes me months to remember my phone number, to remember how to weave my way back home through faceless changing construction sites.

We settle into a daily life of Western veneer. I wake at dawn and practise yoga on an upstairs porch overlooking a brown flat land. I search hard to find the items we need to replicate the life we left behind – a pumpkin for Halloween, a turkey for my American children. Soy milk, tofu, the items of our other abandoned life and the diet that used to define us, are impossible to find.

A child in Ariana’s class hears that there is no father in our home and cries for us. Ariana shakes as she tells me this. Broken families are not the norm in this land of dust and brown and my children feel even more displaced.

But on Tuesdays, every Tuesday, we escape our westernised compound and adventure downtown to the souqs. The sea of men in dish-dash part as I walk through the narrow alleys in jeans and a button-up shirt with my two blonde daughters hugging close. The occasional woman peers at us through the slits of her naqab, then turns away. It feels like we part the Red Sea wherever we go and this makes me feel very, very powerful but it also feels like we are a contamination just to look at, which makes me feel very alone.

We buy shoes and scarves and frankincense for the house, and then we walk through the spice section and weigh out the curries and chillies we have invented a need for. It is the colour more than the taste that interests me. Finally we go to Perfume Alley and I visit the perfume man, who kindly pours me sweet tea with mint while the children run up and down the alley trying every perfume they can. They return, redolent with scents, some of which are almost familiar, a memory just beyond reach, but for the most part are exotic and new. I ask my perfume friend about the distillation process and he explains about alcohol-free perfumes. I ask him about other Arabic customs and ways, about jinn and superstitions, and incidentally, one day, I ask him about spells.

‘Ah yes,’ he says. ‘Al nashrah. If you are bound by a spell, there are just two ways to undo it, by casting another – which is the work of Shayteen – or by prayers and seeking refuge in Allah.’

I do not argue with him as I absorb this information with my tea but I know there is a third way – and that of course is to tell it – to tell the story of the spell as truly and fully as possible and hopefully, through the telling, to explain and find forgiveness. It is what I will do here if I can find the courage to be honest – confess and seek redemption.

The call to prayers begins just then, emanating from the dozen mosques that encircle us, reverberating as it weaves through narrow airless alleys. Every radio and distant mosque takes up its own version. They sing in a fragmented unison, sound moving through the different distances and dreams – a vibration that encircles.

‘Come to pray.’

‘Come to pray,’ it calls.

‘The time for the best of deeds has come.’

My perfume man excuses himself to wash but I barely notice. The sound is penetrating me, each wave of energy containing its own potent message. As I sit finishing my tea Cadance climbs on top of me and I feel the vibration enter her as well. Wishing that it wouldn’t, that I could find a way to spare her this sensitivity, I take advantage of the clearing of the alleys and hurry my children back to the car, just pushing them along. But on my way back home that evening, I remember the feel of that vibration, and the way my focus on it overtook all my other senses, and I wonder if I am here for a reason. It is a world of calls to pray and calls to action here, a soundscape in a flat and barren territory and perhaps I need to be here to undo the damage I have done. Perhaps the words of evocation and the magic to infuse them with are hovering somewhere, just waiting for their moment.

Prologue to “A Sibling’s Story”